5.31.2014

The Creepy Conundrums of Time Travel

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Time travel is possible, according to physicists. The math of relativity allows it.

However, time travel is impractical and unfeasible due to the very relativity that makes it possible. Feasible and possible are not the same thing in this case.

Let's reason it through.

Let's say you invent and manufacture a fully functional time machine. Inebriated by your own awesomeness at accomplishing this formidible feat and compelled to action by hubris, you get in and with a surprising lack of your usual forethought, you turn some dials and send yourself one year into the past. A moment later you find yourself in the cold vaccuum of interstellar space and promptly die as the bubble of air that time traveled with you rapidly dissipates.

You see, your machine worked perfectly. The problem is, a year prior to your ill fated leap through time, the space occupied by you and your time machine was occupied by...well...space. Empty space.

In remarkable, albeit short-lived, 20/20 hindsight, you realize that your choice to go one year in the past had a certain very narrowly defined logic to it. It takes the earth just about a year to go around the sun and all else in the universe held constant, you might have arrived only about six hours before the arrival of the prior year's Earth in that vicinity of its orbital plane around the Sun, give or take a few thousand miles. When the earth finally arrived, you frozen dessicated corpse would hit the atmosphere and incinerate.

Even if you had designed your time machine to compensate for the Earth's roughly 365.25 day transit around the Sun (derp!), your cosmic provincialism would still likely have been your undoing. In a year's local time, the entire solar system would have moved a fair piece due to the rotation of the Milky Way galaxy, never mind the exponential expansion of the universe itself.

Now let's reset the clock, if you will pardon the expression. Assume you thought of all these technical obstacles in advance and gave your time machine the computing power to extrapolate the movement of space across past and future time (let's set aside the increasing margins of error the farther in time you decide to go...think 10 day weather forecasts). You still have another issue.

After years of R&D, prototype testing, and countless deaths of lab rats and rhesus monkeys (you can't say you miss the monkeys...ornery little buggers), you finally turn on your fully functional time machine. Depending on your ultimate design, one of two things is possible.

The most probable design is that your time machine transports through time whatever is placed WITHIN it, but does not transport the time machine itself. This is the safest time machine design (though not for rats and monkeys). If you could transport the machine itself, there would be no need for all those years of writing grants and toiling over your PhD thesis in quantum physics. You could just transport back in time to visit your penniless graduate student self and hand over all the research, schematics, and calculations so he or she could make short work of it. Your past self would seem overjoyed and promptly take you out for celebratory beers. At some point in the evening, your past self drugs and murders your future self and then hides your machine in a secure storage facility while pretending to have a highly successful career as a research physicist, eventually bringing forth the time machine you worked so hard on and winning the Nobel Prize you should have won. Was it homicide? Or suicide?

Now let's return from that alternate universe where the diabolically evil you resides. The present good you, seeking to avoid ethical conundrums, goes with prototype A, the one that only transports whatever is within its transportation field. You design in some quantum computing so that anything transported through time can only reappear within the time field of another time machine similar or identical in design to your own. Using quantum communication, your machine can identify accessible points in spacetime, which gives you kind of a weird creepy feeling.

If you identify accessible points in spacetime prior to the first functional activation of your machine, prepare for trouble and give up any notion of free will.

Another option is to transport a smaller time machine using the first time machine. This second time machine is programmed with only one destination, to return you to the inside of the first time machine. Dangers here include malfunctions of the first or second time machine. Watch the show "Sliders" for a crude representation of the dangers inherent in this design. If the second smaller machine always returns you to the exact point in spacetime when you left, you probably don't have to worry about time machine #1 malfunctioning before your return. You'll want time machine 2 to be very well manufactured and preferably airtight and well stocked with food, water, and oxygen.

1.19.2014

Heaven and Hell

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James opened the laptop and started Skype. Just as the Devil had said, Rebecca's name showed up on the list of available contacts. James double-clicked it and waited for it to connect. The laptop speakers played the digitized sound of a phone dialing and then ringing. A moment later, there was a click and Rebecca's face appeared on the screen.

It was her usual neutral look with a hint of surprise.

"Amazing," she said. "It worked!"

"I know," James replied. "Isn't that crazy?"

"Crazy," Rebecca agreed, now smiling.

"So, how is Heaven?" James asked.

"Oh, it's OK," Rebecca replied. "Peaceful. How is where you are?"

"You mean Hell?" James asked. Rebecca didn't reply and the smile faded slightly. "Sorry," he continued. "I know you don't like to say it."

"I haven't changed much since I got here," Rebecca said.

"Me neither," James said. "Except that now I know you were mostly right about the afterlife."

"Mostly?" Rebecca queried.

"Well, you were right that religious people go to Heaven and sinners go to Hell," James explained. "But atheists also go to Hell."

"I was right about that too," Rebecca said.

"Not exactly right though," James said. "Atheists don't burn for all eternity down here."

"Obviously not," Rebecca taunted, sticking out her tongue. "But what is it like?"

"We are really free. It is kind of like a big party," James said. "I even play in a rock-n-roll band here, just like in life. The Devil has hired my band for a few parties and special events."

"What kind of events?" Rebecca asked.

"You don't want to know," James replied. "It's not pretty. The sinners get their due."

"Oh, you're right, I don't want to know," Rebecca said.

"I am sorry we can't be together," James said, changing the subject. Rebecca's smile faded and her brow furrowed.

"I told you so," Rebecca said. "I tried to get you to convert to my religion."

"Heaven is pretty exclusive, eh?" James asked, rhetorically. "I was surprised by that. Before I died, I always thought that God would have some kind of policy for the significant others of religious folks, kind of like a Green Card for non-believers. So when the Devil told me you had died, I wondered why I didn't get a call from Upstairs."

"Maybe if we had been married," Rebecca said. "I almost didn't get in here because we did things that were, strictly speaking, not allowed in the Bible. It was actually good that you were an atheist, because I was only judged on what I did and God thought my hardcore religiousness saved me."

"And that's another thing," James said. "Being Christian isn't the only way into Heaven apparently. So you weren't exactly right about the Jesus thing either."

"You're nitpicking."

"I know. But I can totally understand why God let you in," James said. "You are the nicest person I ever knew."

Then he changed the subject again. "There is a lot of stuff to do here," James said. "The Devil is really into science and nature and exploring the cosmos. The scientists here, at least the atheist ones, get whatever scientific equipment they want and do a lot of cutting edge stuff."

"Funny," Rebecca said, smiling again. "The scientists were all wrong about God and Heaven."

"Let's not have that debate again, Becks," James said. "Life…er, death…is too short."

"Actually, it's an eternity," Rebecca laughed.

"It's great to see you're so happy, Becks."

"I really am," Rebecca said. "You were right about one thing too."

"Oh yeah? What's that?"

"God gives you your own tropical island when you get to Heaven and you can decide who can visit it."

"Genius," James said. "I knew it."

"But most people here are really nice," Rebecca said. "Like you said, being Christian alone doesn't get you in here, so a lot of not so nice Christians didn't get in. They are down there..."

"Believe me, I know," James said. "My band has played some events where some not so nice Christians were being sent off to various eternal damnations."

"Ugh, don't tell me about that," Rebecca said, scrunching up her face in that cute way James found so endearing.

"I have a gig tonight, Becks, so I need to get going."

"OK, James, let's talk again soon."

"Sounds good. Before we go, can you do that cool click sound with your voice?"

Rebecca made the vocal clicking sound that was characteristic of the native language spoken in South Africa, where she had spent part of her life on Earth.

"I love it," James said. "And I love you."

"I love you too," Rebecca said, and she blew James a kiss over the CosmoNet. He pretended to catch it and touch it to his lips. Then he quit Skype and headed off for his gig.

8.19.2013

Historical vs. Devotional Biblical Study

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I dated a fundamentalist Christian woman once. She was a very nice person, but she wanted me to convert to Christianity. I told her I supported and respected her beliefs but could not embrace them as my own. She liked me though, so for some reason she stuck with me for a while. All she asked was that I attend Bible study with her. I agreed, because why not? I might learn something.

Unfortunately, it was a bit disastrous. We attended a Bible study in a church and the fundamentalist cleric leading it spent most of the time denigrating science and reason, and not talking about the Bible at all - just putting down everything that contradicted it as the inerrant word of the Lord. I could see where it was leading. Kill off every idea against devotional acceptance of the Bible and all you are left with is devotional acceptance of the Bible. That's not what I was going for, and I was immediately put off. I wanted to get into the meat and potatoes of the "good book." I wanted to find out all the inner workings and drama from a rational scientific and historical standpoint. I wanted to learn about the people who put the Bible together and what their lives were like. But that was not the purpose of this particular Bible study.

On my own, I started reading some of Bart Ehrman's books on historical study of Jesus and the Bible, without the devotional mumbo jumbo of the fundamentalist churchies. Ehrman showed me the difference between devotional closed minded biblical study and historical, scientific, factual biblical study.

I had had a hard time understanding why the churchies avoided exploring the Bible historically, but Ehrman showed that it is a fundamental difference in approach. One is faith based, the other is reason based. With faith, you don't need facts or science, just blind belief. Conversely, reason is limited to what you can know through historical research. It is not interested in miracles so much as why the stories of miracles were included in the Bible.

Once I grasped the fundamental difference between historical biblical study and devotional biblical study, all bets were off. We were doomed.

I wanted to know stuff about the Bible like who really wrote it and how it came to be all in one book and why the stories all contradict in important ways. I wanted to know how it was a product of the times during which the various books were written and why the authors took the angles they did in telling the same stories in different ways. That seemed a lot more eye opening to me than simple ignorant acceptance of the book as the inerrant word of God. I could not understand why Christians would not desire to explore their book more deeply and richly through intimate historical study, even if the facts contradicted their long held devotional beliefs. Why did they fear truth?

In any case, I did not want to be brainwashed into devotional worship of a clearly errant and metaphorical mythology book. I wanted to go deep and rational.

She thought my desire to study the Bible historically was destructive. It was. But only to our relationship.